Extraterrestrial iron

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Isaac Schultz, Gizmodo (12/20/22):

The Coolest Archaeological Discoveries of 2022

Let's revisit the best old stuff that made headlines this year.

Some of these are gruesome, e.g., the parasitic worms found in 2,700-year-old toilet, which reminds me of my experiences in Nepal.  Many of them have implications for language and linguistics (see the references and links below).  Most of them attest to cultural contacts across wide distances.

My favorite is King Tut's space dagger, made out of meteoritic iron, which is especially interesting, given that the Iron Age didn't begin until a century after King Tut's death.

The researchers did chemical analyses on the dagger and also turned to ancient Egyptian literature, where they found references to a special dagger gifted to King Tut’s grandfather by a foreign ruler.

(source:  here, here)

The sheen, shape, and ornamentation of the dagger remind me of other fabled, ancient knives and swords from across Eurasia.

"Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 7" (1/11/21) — with lengthy bibliography, and many other posts in this and other series on Language Log.

"Sword out of the stone" (8/9/08)

See C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail.  New York and London: Garland, 1994; rev. pb. 2000. In the British journal, Religion, 28.3 (July, 1998), 294-300, I [VHM] wrote a review in which I pointed out that the celebrated motif of a mighty arm rising up out of the water holding aloft the hero's sword can also be found in a medieval Chinese tale from Dunhuang. That review is available electronically from ScienceDirect, if your library subscribes to it. Otherwise, I think this version on the Web is a fairly faithful copy.

  1. The Coolest Archaeological Discoveries of 2022
  2. Largest cave art in North America found
  3. Parasitic worms found in 2,700-year-old toilet
  4. Shackleton’s Endurance found
  5. Australian boab carvings
  6. Lead coffins beneath Notre Dame
  7. King Tut’s space dagger
  8. Canaanite script discovered on ancient lice comb
  9. Human spines found on posts in Peru
  10. The oldest known human fossil… is even older
  11. Apparent Crusades-era grenades found in Jerusalem
  12. Human-butchered mammoths in New Mexico
  13. Cosmic rays suggest humans arrived in Americas by coast
  14. Preserved finds from the day Pompeii fell

Prepublication comment from June Teufel Dreyer:

I wondered if humans were present to see the meteorite come down, then decided to forge the dagger out of it.   Surely would’ve been regarded as a sign from whatever heaven they believed in.

Selected readings


  1. Victor Mair said,

    December 31, 2022 @ 5:21 pm

    From Judith Lerner:

    See Nathaniel L. Erb-Satullo, “The Innovation and Adoption of Iron in the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Archaeological Research 27 (2019): 557-609, for what seems to be the earliest instance of meteoritic (as opposed to smelted) iron: beads from a Naqada-period site in Egypt (c. 3400-3100 CE). And then there are other, though rare, instances from Morocco, Ugarit on the Syrian coast, Anatolia and on to Shang dynasty China.
    I believe a bracelet and the headrest from Tutankhamen’s tomb also contained meteoritic iron—the work on Tutankhamen’s dagger was confirmation of its meteoritic iron.

  2. Martin Schwartz said,

    December 31, 2022 @ 6:00 pm

    In Ancient Egyptian, 'iron' is b3 n pt 'metal of heaven'.
    Similarly Sumerian, an-bar 'heaven/sky metal'. Both refer to
    iron as first known, from meteorites. Beyond that,
    it seems to me that the earliest metallurgy on both sides of the Mediterranean may explain the phonetic compatibility
    of Eg. b3 and Sum. bar 'metal'; 3 in Eg. was a glide consonant
    which postvocalically coresponds to Semitic r in both
    cognates and Sem. loanwords. While Sumerian is not Semitic,
    the phonic principle holds.

  3. Nat said,

    January 1, 2023 @ 2:34 am

    “which reminds me of my experiences in Nepal.” And therein lies a tale…

  4. R. Fenwick said,

    January 1, 2023 @ 8:14 pm

    Unfortunately these articles don't name the Mitanni historical figures involved, but for those who are interested the Mitanni king in question was Tushratta, whose daughter Taduhepa was the one destined to be married to Amenhotep III. The list of wedding gifts is to be found in the Amarna letter EA 22; Tutankhamun's dagger could have been the one that Tushratta describes as "one dagger, the blade of iron, the hilt of tooled gold, the haft of […], inlaid with genuine lapis lazuli, the pommel of ḫiliba-stone". (The identity of ḫiliba-stone has long been unclear and Anson Rainey's 2015 translation of the Amarna letters continues to leave the term untranslated, but if Tutankhamun's dagger was indeed the same one gifted to his grandfather by Tushratta, then it seems ḫiliba referred to rock crystal.) To introduce a bit of confusion, Tushratta's wedding gifts to Amenhotep included two iron daggers, as well as a mace and several bracelets also made of iron; the other dagger in the list is described similarly, though unlike the first its hilt isn't described as uṣṣuru "engraved, carved, tooled", whereas the deep zigzags in the hilt of Tutankhamun's dagger do match that description quite well. Also interesting is that in most instances EA 22 uses the Sumerogram AN.BAR to refer to iron (which, as Martin points out, means "sky metal"), but in one instance – which happens to be in the description most closely matching Tutankhamun's star dagger – the text instead syllabically spells the Hurro-Akkadian equivalent, ḫabalkinu "iron" (from Hurrian ḫabalki, ultimately from Hattic ḫapalki).

    On somewhat of a tangent, the Amarna letters show that it wasn't just the profligacy of the wedding gifts listed in EA 22, but that Tushratta seems more generally to have just been a bit extra. Anyone who's got the inclination and a sense of historical whimsy should definitely read a translation of the letters EA 26 and 27 in particular, sent by Tushratta on the topic of some gold statues Amenhotep had promised to send but had died before he could follow through. It seems Amenhotep's son Akhenaten subsequently sought to cheap out on the deal by sending wooden statues plated with gold instead, sending Tushratta into such a tizzy that he doesn't just write back in a melodramatically injured tone to Akhenaten (EA 27), but also sends a separate second letter to Amenhotep's widow Tiye (EA 26), in the hopes that she might be able to shame her son into fulfilling the spirit of his father's word. EA 26 includes the following spectacular line: In the land of your son, gold is like dirt; why has this caused your son's heart such distress that he did not give me what was requested, but has given this to me instead? Is this love? (Actually, the tone does remind me a little of the famed customer complaint letters to the Babylonian merchant Ea-Nasir. Beautiful melodrama!)

    On another tangent entirely, Tutankhamun's dagger also wasn't the only object in his tomb of meteoritic origins. The large carved greenish-yellow scarab that's the centrepiece of his spectacularly bejewelled pectoral was initially thought to have been carved from a variety of chalcedony, but more recent analysis has shown that it's actually a huge gem-quality chunk of what's called Libyan desert glass. This is a natural glass formed by a meteorite impact in the Sahara roughly 28 million years ago. Since the world was in a period of cooling during the Oligocene that would have induced a Saharan arid phase, it would have been rather similar to what the modern Sahara looks like, viz. lots of fairly homogeneous sand, with relatively little in the way of organic or other contaminants; when this sand was melted by the high temperature and pressure of the meteorite, the resulting glass was quite pure and what few impurities there were were only enough to impart a pleasant yellowish tint, rather than resulting in a completely opaque glass like one sees with tektites and such. No other example of Libyan desert glass is known from Egyptian jewellery.

  5. Kaleberg said,

    January 10, 2023 @ 12:06 am

    Cape York in Greenland had its own iron age based on meteor iron hundreds of years before the Vikings arrived.

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